Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The World Has Changed--And It Hasn't: Part 2



I hadn’t planned a follow-up to my most recent post, but reading today has added some thoughts and points of view worth sharing. 

Roger Cohen
Roger Cohen in NYT writes about the participation in ISIS by volunteers coming from Europe. He writes: 

More than 500, and perhaps as many as 800, British Muslims have headed for Syria and Iraq to enlist in the jihadi ranks. In France, that number stands at about 900. Two adolescent girls, 15 and 17, were detained last week in Paris and face charges of conspiring with a terrorist organization. The ideological appeal of the likes of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is intact. It may be increasing, despite efforts to build an interfaith dialogue, reach out to moderate Islam, and pre-empt radicalization.

Cohen quotes a Brit who works with those (men mostly—of course) who might make this jump: 

“One minute you are trying to pay bills, the next you’re running around Syria with a machine gun,” said Ghaffar Hussain, the managing director of the Quilliam Foundation, a British research group that seeks to tackle religious extremism. “Many young British Muslims are confused about their identity, and they buy into a narrow framework that can explain events. Jihadists hand them a simplistic narrative of good versus evil. They give them camaraderie and certainty. ISIS makes them feel part of a grand struggle.”

Anticipating what Roger Scruton has written (see below), Cohen states: 

Perhaps racked with historical guilt, European nations with populations from former colonies often seem unable to celebrate their values of freedom, democracy and the rule of law. Meanwhile, in the Arab world the central hope of the Arab Spring has been dashed: that more open and representative societies would reduce the frustration that leads to extremism.

Cohen concludes: 

[T]he deepest American and Western defeat has been ideological. As Hussain said, “If you don’t have a concerted strategy to undermine their narrative, their values, their worldview, you are not going to succeed. Everyone in society has to take on the challenge.”

So Cohen seems to conclude that we’re losing a battle for the hearts and minds of young men (mostly) who may have a connection (tenuous, as we’ll see below) to Islam. 

In this piece from TNR, writer Mehdi Hasan writes about the seeming weirdness of ISIS recruits and other would-be Islamic terrorists: 

Sarwar and Ahmed, both of whom pleaded guilty to terrorism offences last month, purchased Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies. You could not ask for better evidence to bolster the argument that the 1,400-year-old Islamic faith has little to do with the modern jihadist movement. The swivel-eyed young men who take sadistic pleasure in bombings and beheadings may try to justify their violence with recourse to religious rhetoric— think the killers of Lee Rigby screaming “Allahu Akbar” at their trial; think of Islamic State beheading the photojournalist James Foley as part of its “holy war”—but religious fervour isn’t what motivates most of them.

Hasan continues: 

In 2008, a classified briefing note on radicalisation, prepared by MI5’s behavioural science unit, was leaked to the Guardian. It revealed that, “far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practise their faith regularly. Many lack religious literacy and could ... be regarded as religious novices.” The analysts concluded that “a well-established religious identity actually protects against violent radicalisation,” the newspaper said.

For more evidence, read the books of the forensic psychiatrist and former CIA officer Marc Sageman; the political scientist Robert Pape; the international relations scholar Rik Coolsaet; the Islamism expert Olivier Roy; the anthropologist Scott Atran. They have all studied the lives and backgrounds of hundreds of gun-toting, bomb-throwing jihadists and they all agree that Islam isn’t to blame for the behaviour of such men (and, yes, they usually are men).

This means we have to think outside many simple parameters (“It’s Islam”) that seem so easy and direct but that simply wrong (because simple). Hasan quotes Atran: 

Atran pointed out in testimony to the US Senate in March 2010: “... what inspires the most lethal terrorists in the world today is not so much the Quran or religious teachings as a thrilling cause and call to action that promises glory and esteem in the eyes of friends, and through friends, eternal respect and remembrance in the wider world.” He described wannabe jihadists as “bored, under¬employed, overqualified and underwhelmed” young men for whom “jihad is an egalitarian, equal-opportunity employer ... thrilling, glorious and cool.”

Roger Scruton
Yesterday I got into reading Roger Scruton’s The West and the Rest: Globalization & the Terror Threat (2002). This heavy-duty philosopher (aesthetics, music, Spinoza, Kant, etc.) is also is an outspoken “conservative” in the Burkean tradition (he's not one of the “all Hayek, all day” stations), and he’s a fine essayist. In this book, he contrasts the doctrine and culture of Islam with those of the Greek, Roman, and Judeo-Christian West (many rivers flow in to the Western basin). He argues that the West has developed some fundamental tenants, especially since the Enlightenment, which sets it off from Islam. Some of the key differences go back much further, but because one can argue that the Enlightenment was the most significant change in Western culture in about two millennia, I think that Scruton rightly focuses on differences arising from the Enlightenment. For instance, that’s when Western Christianity—Protestant and Catholic—began to play a different role in public life. Scuton doesn't think that the West has done enough (in arugment) to defend its values and traditions in the face of criticisms and that this lack of an energetic defense only serves to inflame and energize would-be attackers.

What I get from Scruton (so far) focuses not so much on background of terrorists and would-be terrorists, as (for example) Atran does, but instead Scruton focuses on the high cultural differences, especially in politics and law. One might at first glance think that he contradicts those such as Atran cited in the TNR article by Hasan, but I don’t think so. What I think that the significant cultural differences establish is that immigrants to the West, especially from Islamic countries, may have a greater disjunction between their native culture (so defined by religion) and the culture that they find in the West. (Some other non-Western cultures, for instance, Chinese, would not suffer the same degree of culture shock.) Because of the depth of the difference, a deeper, more threatening sense of alienation can develop. Of course, this needn’t be true, as many from Islamic countries emigrate successfully to the West (U.S., U.K. Europe, Australia, etc.). But if alienation develops, as it can so easily in young males, then you have a recipe for disaster because of the compelling claims that they can recover from Islamic tradition. From reading today, one gets a sense of “cradle” Moslems prone to violence and steeped in fundamentalist Islamic culture are sought out by those who use Islam as a vehicle into a violent and totalizing movement.

 Thus, you have two different groups and sets of motivations to consider when thinking about how to counteract the threats that they pose.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The World Has Changed--And It Hasn't



Nassim Taleb begins a chain of thoughts
A confluence of reading in the last couple of days has brought the perplexing pattern of modern political reality to the forefront of my attention. Recently on Twitter, Nassim Taleb commented that UK philosopher John Gray was the only one to recognize that Islamic extremism is a reaction to modernity. While not contesting Gray’s insight, I suggested that Karen Armstrong came to a similar conclusion in her book The Battle for God, published in 2000. (N.B. Taleb later references the work of Scott Atran, whose work also addresses this issue.) Regardless of who first grasped or published this insight, it seems to be gaining traction. Ross Douthat, in his Sunday New York Times column, discussed the idea that liberal modernity has always spawned counter-movements and that ISIS is
only the latest. Communism and Fascism are the prominent predecessors to the claim of anti-modern, anti-liberal ideological leadership. Douthat in turn references an American Interest article by Abram N. Shulsky, which provides a longer-range consideration of anti-modern, anti-liberal movements. (Modernity and liberalism are not synonymous, but they are closely linked and nearly inter-changeable for these purposes.) Finally, I reviewed an article by British philosopher Roger Scruton, a “conservative”*, who argues that the West must vigorously oppose what he perceives as seven core distinctions between the West and fundamentalist Islam. Scruton writes:
In the public sphere, we can resolve to protect the good things that we have inherited. That means making no concessions to those who wish us to exchange citizenship for subjection, nationality for religious conformity, secular law for shari’ah, the Judeo-Christian inheritance for Islam, irony for solemnity, self-criticism for dogmatism, representation for submission, and cheerful drinking for censorious abstinence.
 All this has led me to ponder some questions and suggest some possibilities:

Taleb, Gray, Armstrong, Atran, and others who agree with them are correct in characterizing Islamic fundamentalism as a reaction to modernity. To see the phenomena of Islamism as simply a regression to an earlier (medieval) form of thought misses the crucial importance played by modernity. Alas, to many in Moslem nations, modernity appears in the guise of Western imperialism and militarism or cultural dominance. Fault lines (a la Samuel Huntington) between Islam and its neighbors aren’t new, but Islamist thinking about Islamic society and its relation to its non-Moslem neighbors does come in modern garb.

Liberalism, with its individuality, free markets, and lack of legal and social restraints, is a recent development in human culture. While we can’t pinpoint a start date, northwest Europe began the transition around 1500, and it gained momentum from the incredible economic change that started around 1800 with the Industrial Revolution. By 1900, “the West” (western Europe and the English-speaking countries) dominated the world stage. But as Europe was the vanguard of modernity, so it served as the spawning ground for the first anti-modern, anti-liberal movements. 

Nationalism, Romanticism, Anarchism, Communism, and Fascism, are all anti-liberal, anti-modern reactions (in varying degrees). All arose and exerted a significant effect on Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries (and to a lesser extent on the U.S.).
Some of these ideologies, such as nationalism and forms politics approaching fascism, are now at play again around Europe:  Putinism in Russia, Erdogan’s regime in Turkey, and Orban’s regime in Hungary. The Hungarian case is most intriguing because Hungary had seemed securely within the post-WWII, post-communist camp embodied by the EU—and it is the most surprising in which to see an aggressive anti-liberal, anti-democratic regime. 

To some, these developments call into question the thesis of Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man. One can reach this conclusion if you read Fukuyama as arguing for the inevitable triumph of the Western liberal idea. I don’t think that’s what he argued. He argued that the democratic, market-oriented ideal no longer had a viable rival worldview. Who proposes a new worldview that can supplant liberal democracy? Not ISIS or resurgent fascism.
In addition, Fukuyama considered the problem of “the last man” and “men without chests” (both from Nietzsche). In some measure, the anti-modern viewpoints noted above seek to displace the logic and status of bourgeois society, and the problem could be endemic to the system, as Douthat suggests and as (I think) Fukuyama would admit. We might call it the thymos problem. (To what extent the thymos problem is a male problem is an intriguing one but one that I’ll set aside for now.)

Are we stuck in a low, sub-optimal equilibrium, with bourgeois society surviving but unable to put an end to the impulse to counter that's driven by atavistic urges? Is there a way out? To this, we’d have to turn to speculation. Dr. John Kemp, of the University of Iowa, for instance, in his Choosing Survival: Creating Highly Adaptive Societies, takes an optimistic perspective and suggests that the long-term trend impels nations and societies to move to open, modern social and economic institutions that include democracy, individual rights, and markets. But I’m not as confident of this trend. I fear that we will (at best) become stuck in a rut, economically, ecologically, and internationally, with the distinct possibility of a downward spiral if severe resource issues arise. With climate, ecological, and population pressures pushing hard on nations and societies, resource wars seem a distinct possibility, adding to and further inciting ideological and religious fervor.  

Another viewpoint, outside the mainstream box, comes from those best represented by Ken Wilber’s synthetic mind. (If you’re unfamiliar with Wilber, this movie review of Cloud Atlas from no less than the New York Review of Books, gives a brief account of his work and influence.) Wilber gathers and furthers many thinkers who argue that human culture is ready to step ahead and (presumably) out of our current stalemates. Wilber’s project has always fascinated and (largely) persuaded me. However, I believe that he’d agree that stepping up and out of current predicaments (fundamentalism, power politics, ecological and economic crises, etc.) isn’t guaranteed. Current political decisions shape our future. We can't hope to arrive at the Promised Land by drifting on the tide of history.

So it comes back to “What do we do now?” How aggressive can and should American policy be toward ISIS and other such anti-Western ideologies? Note that the Soviet empire and communism as a living ideology didn’t fall in a military defeat to the West. It collapsed from the inside because it compared so poorly to the West and because of its own internal contradictions. Our perceptions of the nature and extent of threats posed by anti-liberal, anti-Western ideologies affects how we respond to them. Anyone who supports the modern, liberal project—including those who seek to transcend it—must ponder these troubling issues. We have no easy answers, but our answers will shape our future.

*Americans, note well, that “conservative” by UK or European standards are often different from what we call conservative in the U.S., although Douthat, David Brooks, and David Frum are exceptional American conservatives in their greater concern for society instead of just economics, their articulate writing, and their—in a classical sense—liberal beliefs.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Edinburgh Underside: A Review of Hide & Seek by Ian Rankin

603678The work of Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin has been a favorite since I first encountered one of the Rebus novels some years ago at ICPL.  (On tape or CD--I'm not sure how long ago I'm talking). Since then, I've decided to go back and follow Rebus through his beginnings, so this is the second in the series (earlier I read Knots and Crosses). In this book, Rebus investigates what seems to be an unintentional overdose of a junkie. But Rebus is a skeptic and a determined one at that. As Rebus digs deeper, he peels back a veneer on top of wealthy Edinburgh that's intended to remain hidden.

The series works because Rankin makes Rebus work as a human being. Rebus is a complex character with a daughter, an ex, and current love interests all muddled together with work, sleep, and life in general. And he has colleagues and superiors, not all of whom help him.

I won't go on because I've praised Rankin/Rebus before, and I suspect that the series (this is my third) will only get better. Now that's something to look forward to.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

All the World’s a Stage: A Review of Making Make-Believe Real: Politics as Theater in Shakespeare’s Time by Garry Wills




Anyone acquainted with contemporary politics recognizes the immense amount of pageantry, pomp, and theater displayed in political life, from stage-managed political conventions, to inaugurals full of solemn oaths and speeches, to the blare of trumpets announcing the arrival of the president, followed by “Hail to the Chief”. Lesser and innumerable examples abound, even in a day and age when theater is a lesser art (at least measured by the numbers of patrons and artists). But in the time of Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth, the play was the thing to capture anyone’s attention, including the English populace that Elizabeth ruled (and that ruled her).

I expected this book (2014) to focus on the works of Shakespeare since Wills has twice before published books on Shakespeare topics: Witches and Jesuits: Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1995) and Verdi’s Shakespeare: Men of the Theater (2011). However, while Wills does spend some time on Shakespeare—including an especially enlightening discussions of Taming of the Shrew and Henry V—this book addresses the wider cultural milieu. Wills explores how the need to hold and wield political power in Elizabethan England uses theater, poetry, and public spectacle to influence popular perceptions. Indeed, entire lives seem dedicated to gaining and maintaining the audience, whether it's the courtiers seeking the approval of Elizabeth, such as Essex, or Elizabeth herself courting her subjects. Wills writes:
A self-dramatizing trait is so common in plays of the time [referencing various rulers portrayed in Shakespeare's plays] that we must suspect it is more than mere personal foible, in the character or the playwright —more even than the convention of theatrical characters being theatrical. The best indicator of this is that the most grandiose self-presenters are men and women who seek or hold power. And power, after all, must always find a way to project its claims onto the people it would control.
Wills, Garry (2014-06-10). Making Make-Believe Real (Kindle Locations 94-97). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
Wills notes that “performance theory” now addresses not only the particulars of production, but also the why and wherefore of the efforts. He states:
Performance has become an ever widening and ever -deepening concept. It can indicate all the ways a society enacts meaning. It can apply to speech acts as primarily enacting rather than signifying— the “performative speech” of J. L. Austin. It can mean the achievement of identity by adopting a role— the “performativity” of Judith Butler. There is such a sprawl of performance theory that it is necessary to narrow the focus to see what is distinctive about Elizabethans’ way of dramatizing their culture’s meaning. I will try out three approaches, to see if they help concentrate on Elizabethan self-dramatizations. The three are the theater -state of Clifford Geertz, the emblem systems of the Warburg School, and the process rites of Victor Turner.

Wills, Garry (2014-06-10). Making Make-Believe Real (Kindle Locations 115-122). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
Based on these theoretical foundations, Wills considers Elizabeth’s predicament: “Elizabeth was an anomaly— as a female ruler, unnatural; illegitimate by birth; disowned by her royal father; not sure of marriage or issue; not allied by family with other rulers; caught precariously between entrenched religious factions at home and abroad”. Kindle Locations 259-260. Not an easy situation. And one that required her to jealously guard her prerogatives and to cultivate popular support in every way. Wills notes: 
The expenditure of so much effort, thought, and money on these great theatrical enterprises [plays, masques, and festivals] must have seemed justified in the reign of a queen known for parsimony. These were not frivolous games or ornaments. They were the expression of a transition period trying to articulate its own meaning to itself. The communal effort had to mobilize all the resources that are suggested by Geertzian sacred rites, Warburgian iconology, and Turnerian liminality. It was a society’s way of fighting for its life. There are many meanings discoverable in Christopher Haigh’s oracular statement about Elizabeth: “Her power was an illusion— and an illusion was her power.”

Wills, Garry (2014-06-10). Making Make-Believe Real (Kindle Locations 231-236). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
From these premises, Wills dives into the Elizabethan world that seems quite alien to us, although it continues to intrigue us. From me as a school boy reading about Walter Raleigh and Francis Drake as swash-buckling adventurers to movie-goers intrigued by films depicting Elizabeth, who has been portrayed by actresses from Sarah Bernhardt to a Cate Blanchet, Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, and Vanessa Redgrave (of late!), the public has an appetite for this foreign time. But for all its foreignness—like the plays of Shakespeare that we still devour—it all has a feel of familiarity as well.

Wills is just the person to perform this reconnaissance. His depth of learning from things ancient Greek and Latin to contemporary America, including his ability (and patience) to cull the relevant texts, makes him an expert guide. And for all his worldly knowledge of the intrigues of our lives, he doesn’t play the cynic. Remarking on what seems to us to be the overweening flattering and fawning aimed at Elizabeth, he finds non-trivial ends:
One may think the endless tributes to Elizabeth nothing but an elephantiasis of flattery. But Spenser [author of The Faerie Queene] was using his poem to shape an ideal of the England he wanted to see as the final product of Reformation. England, tested against the template of Faerie Land, should become Faerie Land. Which means the queen should become the Faerie Queene. As A. Bartlett Giamatti put it, “He wishes to influence her as he deifies her, to shape the state as much as to construe the state’s ruler as a model for the individual.”

Wills, Garry (2014-06-10). Making Make-Believe Real (Kindle Locations 409-413). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.


Wills even defends the courtiers, with their literary guides Castiglione and Machiavelli, from charges of simple flattery:

Courtly praise was, admittedly, a pose. Even Castiglione’s courtliest of virtues, sprezzatura, is the ability to conceal effort under a pose of effortlessness. And restraint (Niccolò Machiavelli’s rispetto) is a way to get things by reining in one’s urgency (Machiavelli’s impeto) after them. Thus some New Historicists see “subversion” (their favorite word) under the professed love of Elizabeth’s courtiers. It is certainly true that there was endless jostling of her courtiers for favor, position, property, family advancement, or one’s religious preference, all under the “colour” of ardently professed love. But even in seeking these favors, men strengthened her power to grant them. One does not keep coming back for reward to an enfeebled source.

Wills, Garry (2014-06-10). Making Make-Believe Real (Kindle Locations 413-419). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.

Wills continues:
Those who see nothing but selfish interest in all human action cannot explain why, for some causes, good and bad— nationalism, racism, religion, patriotism— people sacrifice themselves. Of course, selfish aims can be masked as all these “higher” goals. But dissimulation of selfishness, faction, or zealotry is a social lubricator, and in some cases an essential one. It must, admittedly be a plausible pretense. To work, make-believe must be believable , and an array of talents, political and poetic, labored the illusion into place for Elizabeth.

Wills, Garry (2014-06-10). Making Make-Believe Real (Kindle Locations 423-427). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
Following these introductory observations that set the perspective for Wills’s project, he delves into details, and in particular, into Shakespeare. He writes authoritatively and convincingly about gender, dealing with the problematic Taming of the Shrew in a way that makes sense of it and that is quite contrary to many popular conceptions. He takes umbrage at the treatment given the play in such productions as the film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton (directed by Zeferelli). Wills notes:

There is nothing more boring than the brute-on-brute wrestling match of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor— as if they were still playing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?—in Franco Zeffirelli’s production. Ann Thompson rightly prefers John Cleese’s insouciant approach, all the while blowing Kate verbal kisses in Peter Hall’s version.  The anger Cleese puts on is all directed at others, whom he takes to be insulting his goddess, offering her inferior food or clothes. By doing so, of course , he satirizes her own beating of her sister and her servants— a sign of her changing character comes when she pleads that he stop beating the servant.

Wills, Garry (2014-06-10). Making Make-Believe Real (Kindle Locations 861-866). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
Wills quotes Germaine Greer at length on the character and relative merits of Bianca, Kate, and Petruchio:
Kate is a woman striving for her own existence in a world where she is a stale, a decoy to be bid for against her sister’s higher market value, so she opts out by becoming unmanageable, a scold. Bianca has found the women’s way of guile and feigned gentleness to pay better dividends; she woos for herself under false colors, manipulating her father and her suitors in a perilous game which could end in her ruin . Kate courts ruin in a different way, but she has the uncommon good fortune to find Petruchio, who is man enough to know what he wants and how to get it. He wants her spirit and her energy because he wants a wife worth keeping . He tames her as he might a hawk or a high-mettled horse, and she rewards him with strong sexual love and fierce loyalty. Lucentio finds himself saddled with a cold, disloyal woman, who has no objection to humiliating him in public. The submission of a woman like Kate is genuine and exciting because she has something to lay down, her virgin pride and individuality: Bianca is the soul of duplicity, married without earnestness or good will. Kate’s speech is the greatest defense of Christian monogamy ever written. It rests upon the role of a husband as protector and friend , and it is valid because Kate has a man who is capable of being both, for Petruchio is both gentle and strong (it is a vile distortion of the play to have him strike her ever). The message is probably twofold: only Kates make good wives, and then only to Petruchios; for the rest, their cake is dough.

Wills, Garry (2014-06-10). Making Make-Believe Real (Kindle Locations 923-934). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition, quoting Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch (Bantam, 1972), 220– 21.
To my mind, Wills’s consideration of Henry V provides the most intriguing insight. Wills counters interpretations of this play running back to Harold Goddard (The Meaning of Shakespeare, in which I’ve found great merit), Harold Bloom, Stephen Greenblatt, and the New Historicists in general. In short, the later critics see Henry V as a war-monger. Wills sets out the problem:
Most of Shakespeare’s kings are terrible people. They often attain the crown by murder, then keep on murdering to retain it. When a king like Henry VI is not evil, he is a simpleton . To get sympathy , the arrogant King Lear has to go crazy. Once, Shakespeare did try to create a wise and good king, but critics will not allow him to do it. Audiences in the past used to believe the play’s Chorus when he called Henry V “this star of England,” but now we know better. We see Henry V for what he really is—a cruel and lying war criminal, believing none, deceiving all, cut off from decent human feeling. The king may have fooled his own play’s Chorus, but he can’t get away with it at the Modern Language Association, where convened scholars have spent years peeling away this king’s lies to reveal the cold deceiver under them.

Wills, Garry (2014-06-10). Making Make-Believe Real (Kindle Locations 1683-1689). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
Wills notes that those who deprecate Henry (Hal) tend to glorify Falstaff. But to my naïve mind, Falstaff has always, in the end, seemed a lout. Intriguing, but in the way that cynics and manipulators can be—for a while—as comic relief. I’d never really felt that Harold Bloom’s glorification of Falstaff made sense. Now I know I have an ally (and one that I trust). After performing his takedown of the glorification of Falstaff and denigration of Henry/Hal for rejecting his wayward days, others go after Henry as a warmonger, starting with Goddard and moving into the much more recent New Historicists. Wills reminds us that he (Wills) is a pacifist, rather disarming potential critics from labeling him a warmonger, but Wills appreciates that we’re talking about a different world. He writes:
Much of modern criticism is justifiably antimilitaristic. Militarism is an evil in our time, and it should be opposed at any time. But this causes problems in studying a culture that was not only militaristic but monarchical and imperialist . This gives the sixteenth century a number of problems it could not be expected to solve (such as getting rid of monarchs or living with the dream of a United Nations). And it is anachronistic to compare too simply our militarism and that of Elizabethan England, which had no standing army.

Wills, Garry (2014-06-10). Making Make-Believe Real (Kindle Locations 1917-1920). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
Wills explicates the place of honor in this society: 
Keeping mutual obligation alive was a matter of honoring honor. This involved dangerous self-importance and boasting in the contenders for honor, which are deplorable . But to empty out the concept of honor would have unstrung every nerve of Elizabethan society. Today’s intellectual class cultivates self-doubt as a virtue. It has difficulty understanding a culture in which that trait was not esteemed. Some cultures, we forget, cultivate self-confidence, and did it productively. Even now we suspect that successful men and women are usually self-confident. A man can be humble like Bach, or bitter like Swift, or pessimistic like Johnson, but retain enough self-regard to fuel creative energies. And whole civilizations— Periclean Athens, Renaissance Venice, and Elizabethan England— were hypertrophically confident. That does not mean they were incapable of self-criticism. It means they were not crippled by it. T. S. Eliot, whatever his other shortcomings, was a great reader of Tudor and Stuart drama, and he said that its basic social commitment was one of affirmation.

Wills, Garry (2014-06-10). Making Make-Believe Real (Kindle Locations 1926-1939). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
Wills concludes this section with a quote from Henry’s heart-felt musings on the eve of Agincourt (well presented by Kenneth Branagh in his film, in my opinion). Wills compares Henry’s imperfections with those of Lincoln:
Though all that I can do is nothing worth,
Since that my penitence comes after all,
Imploring pardon. [H5 4.1.303– 5]

But no earthly power is immaculately conceived. America’s birth was flawed by its induration of slavery. Lincoln’s rise was through many compromises with the slave power, including his promise in the First Inaugural not to tamper with its bases in the South. The instinct of most patriots is to deny the flawed beginnings, or to think that a gesture of penitence is sufficient to make the stain disappear. It is a mark of the realism of Shakespeare’s patriotism in this play that Henry does neither. He does not simply throw up his hands and resign the tainted power. But he does not pretend the stain is not there. He will, instead, do all he can to blunt its effects by doing better than his father had the chance to do. It is all that a Washington or a Lincoln could pledge. Shakespeare has not written a defense of brutal imperialism in Henry V. He has made his protagonist a searching king, a self-questioning one, acting in an imperfect world without any illusions about that fact. Yet nothing Hal/ Henry does can find acceptance among his dogged denigrators.

Wills, Garry (2014-06-10). Making Make-Believe Real (Kindle Locations 2486-2495). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
Only when we better understand this context can we appreciate the subtleties and nuances of Henry. The critics, in professing their dislike of war and authority must denigrate the whole enterprise of the play, which, as Wills shows in detail, makes no convincing sense. Reading and appreciating this part along (along with his consideration of Taming) makes that book worthwhile. But there’s more.

As Shakespeare wrote, around him great changes in religion occurred. Astrology was a prominent endeavor (reference to the stars can be found in most of Shakespeare’s plays), while some Jesuits and other Catholics were drawn and quartered for their faith. It was not an easy time. All of these changes presented challenges to Elizabeth. As she dealt with these changes in the world concerning religion, war, and profit, she had to deal with the dramatic and capable men who orbited around her. Wills spends time and attention on these men who played a significant role in the era. His consideration of the several of the great figures, Phillip Sidney, Lord Essex, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Prince Henry (son of King James) makes for entertaining reading, as we get mini-biographies of these dashing figures. (I would like to have learned more about Francis Bacon, who remains on the periphery of the stories.) Men like Sidney, Essex, and Raleigh were adept with pens as well as swords and ships.

I’ve discussed only some of what I found to be the highlights of the book. Truly, this was an amazing and intriguing period; a pivot point that allowed England to emerge as a great world power and that profoundly affected Western culture. Wills has provided us with a thorough guide about how the appearances of the day helped create and mold the realities of the day, and his effort proves not only entertaining, but also enlightening.